Diplomats say both challengers are coming across as credible alternatives to the incumbent, reports Yojana Sharma.
A so-far lacklustre campaign for director-general of UNESCO (the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is about to become more heated as the two Arab candidates hoping to eject incumbent director-general Irina Bokova set out their stalls in preparation for the first round of voting on 4 October in Paris, France.
But with UNESCO in crisis over huge budget cuts, its general financial management and future direction are the main campaigning issues rather than any specific policies such as spending on science.
Rachad Farah from Djibouti declared his candidacy early and has been criss-crossing the world's capital cities in search of votes, presenting himself as both an African and an Arab. At the end of August, he was said to have at least two dozen "promises" of support from countries on the 58-member UNESCO executive board that will vote for the next director-general, according to a diplomat.
These are mainly from African Union countries, according to diplomats in Paris, where UNESCO has its headquarters, but it is a "solid and creditable base", one of them tells SciDev.Net.
The African Union endorsed Farah as its candidate at a heads of state summit in January.
This month, Farah tells SciDev.Net, "I received a letter from the African Union Commission to instruct all 17 countries of the African Union [who are on the UNESCO executive board] to fulfil the resolution made by the heads of state".
He describes his backers as being from "African, Arab and non-aligned countries". He has also been visiting countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and says he is confident of upsetting Bokova's bid for a second four-year term.
And he says he received a letter on 29 August confirming the Arab League's endorsement of his candidacy.
A second Arab candidate
But another Arab candidate emerged just as nominations closed in March.
Joseph Maila of Lebanon, nominated by Lebanese president Michel Suleiman, is a former president of the Catholic University of Paris and has been an official in the French foreign ministry and a UNESCO consultant.
"I established the [UNESCO] Centre for International and Human Sciences in Byblos, Lebanon," in 1999, Maila tells SciDev.Net.
"Then, Irina Bokova, asked me, two years ago, to help shape the roadmap for UNESCO concerning the social and political upheavals occurring within the Arab world. I have been involved in UNESCO debates and research and so on for 30 years."
Maila says he has support from some countries in Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, and insists he is "not focusing on a single region or continent".
Diplomats, however, say he is well behind Farah in the race, although even a few backers could be enough to cause difficulties for Bokova next month.
And Farah insists he is not concentrating on Maila. "My competitor is the incumbent," he says.
Diplomats say that in recent months both challengers have managed to present themselves as serious and credible alternatives to Bokova even though most previous director-generals have served two terms, so opponents would normally have little chance of success.
However in this case, Bokova has been damaged by an external audit of UNESCO by French government body the Court of Audits in March.
The auditors' report strongly criticised UNESCO's management, describing decision-making as "hesitant", and "sometimes ambiguous and incoherent". A planned reduction in staff costs has been "too slow" in being implemented, according to the auditors.
And their high credibility and clout makes it difficult for Bokova to shrug off the report, say diplomats.
More importantly, "it is very timely for the election", says Alexander Boksenberg, former chair of the UK National Commission for UNESCO.
"It reflects long-standing shortcomings whose resolution by intended far-reaching reforms has unfortunately seen little progress to date."
“Within UNESCO, there is very good expertise in science, climate change, ocean issues and subaquatic issues. But I am sorry to say UNESCO expertise is being challenged by other institutions, and people are asking: 'Where is UNESCO?”
Joseph Maila, UNESCO
The report was so wide-ranging and damaging, according to diplomats in Paris, that UNESCO's problems could not simply be blamed on the budgetary crisis caused when the US pulled its contribution — amounting to 22 per cent of UNESCO's operating budget for 2012-13 — after Palestine was admitted as a member in 2011.
Diplomats say Washington continues to back Bokova. However, its influence on other countries has been diminished by it not paying its dues.
Diplomats are even debating whether the United States will be able to vote next month as the UNESCO constitution says countries that are two years behind in their contributions are barred from doing so.
Furthermore, the report revived the possibility that challengers stand a chance against Bokova.
Because of the "damning report", it is no longer a foregone conclusion that the executive board will give her a second term, says John Daly, former vice-president of pressure group Americans for UNESCO.
In particular, the need for strong financial management will come in 2014 to 2018, in the next secretary-general's term, coinciding with a time when "sustainable development goals are being set and UNESCO is expected to provide some leadership for the UN system", Daly says.
Fall in prestige
A number of diplomats who are still considering whether to back Bokova, note that the UN agency has "lost prestige" under her watch.
But Bokova has pointed out in documents to UNESCO's executive board and other pronouncements that the UN secretary-general has given the organisation a role on his scientific advisory board, an indication that it can still pull its weight within the UN on science.
In a letter to Didier Migaud, head of the Court of Audits, which has been presented to UNESCO's executive board, Bokova said the criticised reforms had been "guided" by "a series of detailed consultations with member states and other stakeholders" that she maintained had not been "fully reflected" in the audit, "leaving the impression that the [UNESCO] secretariat was alone in handling the governance of this process and that it bears sole responsibility for it".
In the letter Bokova also emphasised UNESCO's importance to the UN system, "by being the lead agency in the United Nations secretary-general's Global Initiative on Education".
But Boksenberg says that work suggested for UNESCO on the scientific advisory board by the UN high level panel's report aligns "with much of what UNESCO could be expected to conduct, more directly, within its existing programmes".
In particular, diplomats argue that if Bokova's proposal to merge science and social science programmes is pushed through, UNESCO could lose even more influence in global science.
Both Farah and Maila have said they will oppose such a merger.
"I want visibility for human sciences. I am a very determined activist, a militant on this matter," Maila says.
He believes the problem is of leadership, not the specific science programmes.
"Within UNESCO, there is very good expertise in science, climate change, ocean issues and subaquatic issues. But I am sorry to say UNESCO expertise is being challenged by other institutions, and people are asking: 'Where is UNESCO?'
"UNESCO is supposed to have a broad view of who is doing what in science and it should be coordinating and adding value," Maila tells SciDev.Net.
"But, unfortunately, what we have been witnessing — maybe over the last 15 years or so — is a lack of visibility, whether it is in science or education, or post-conflict issues, which are issues I have been dealing with. This is very worrying."